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The Dancer In The Flames

The flames writhing out of the ashtray were an eyeball-licking orange. For an instant Lt Schaydin was sure that the image dancing in them was that of the girl he had burned alive in Cambodia, six months before. But no, not quite; though the other's face had been of Gallic cast too.

The two enlisted men had turned at the sound of the officer brushing back the poncho curtain which divided his tent from the rear compartment of the command track. Radios were built into the right wall of the vehicle above a narrow counter. On that counter rested the CQ's clipboard and a cheap glass ashtray, full of flame. The men within—Skip Sloane, who drove the command track and was now Charge of Quarters, and the medic Evens—had been watching the fire when Schaydin looked in. It was to that ten-inch flame which the lieutenant's eyes were drawn as well.

He stared at her calves and up the swell of the hips which tucked in at a waist that thrust toward him. She looked straight at Schaydin then and her mouth pursed to call. Above the image hung the black ripples of smoke which were her hair. Abruptly the flame shrank to a wavering needle and blinked out. The compartment was lighted only by the instrument dials, pitch dark after the orange glare. The air was sharp with the residue of the flame; but more than that caused Schaydin's chest to constrict. He remembered he had called out some joke as he touched the flame-thrower's trigger and set a loop of napalm through the window of the hooch they were supposed to destroy. The Cambodian girl must have been hiding in the thatch or among the bags of rice. She had been all ablaze as she leaped into the open, shrieking and twisting like a dervish until she died. But this tiny image had not screamed, it had really spoke. It/She had said—

"How did you do that?" Schaydin gasped.

The enlisted men glanced at each other, but their commander did not seem angry, only—strange. Sloane held up a 20-ounce block of C-4, plastic explosive. Sweat rolled down the driver's chest and beer gut. He wore no shirt since the radios heated the command vehicle even in the relative coolness of the Vietnamese night. "You take a bit of C-4, sir," Sloane said. His hairy thumb and forefinger gouged out an acorn-sized chunk of the white explosive. Another piece had already been removed. "It takes a shock to make it blow up. If you just touch a match to it in the open, it burns. Like that."

Sloane handed the pellet to Schaydin, who stood with a dazed look on his face. The C-4 had the consistency of nougat, but it was much denser. "We ought 'a air the place out, though," the driver continued. "The fumes don't do anybody much good."

"But how did you get it to look like a woman?" Schaydin demanded. "I could see her right there, her face, her eyes . . . and she was saying . . . ."

Evens reached past the lieutenant and flapped the poncho curtain to stir the dissipating tendrils of smoke. "C-4 makes a pretty flame," the stocky medic said, "but you don't want to get the stuff in your system. We used to have a mascot, a little puppy. She ate part of a block and went pure-ass crazy. Seeing things. She'd back into a corner and snap and bark like a bear was after her . . . . Middle of that afternoon she went haring out over the berm, yapping to beat Hell. We never did see her again."

The medic looked away from his CO, then added, "Don't think you ought to breathe the fumes, either. Hard to tell what it might make you see. Don't think I want to burn any more C-4, even if it does make the damnedest shadows I ever hope to see."

The lieutenant opened his mouth to protest, to insist that he had seen the image the instant he pushed the curtain aside; but he caught his men's expressions. His mind seemed to be working normally again. "You guys just saw a—fire?"

"That's all there was to see," said Evens. "Look, it's late, I better go rack out." Sloane nodded, tossing him the part block of explosive. The medic edged past Schaydin, into the tent and the still night beyond.

"Time for a guard check," Sloane said awkwardly and reseated himself before the microphone. One by one the heavyset man began calling the vehicles sited around the circular berm. The tracks replied with the quiet negative reports that showed someone was awake in each turret. The CQ did not look up at his commander, but when Schaydin stepped back from the compartment and turned away, he heard a rustle. Sloane had pulled the poncho closed.

Schaydin sat down on the edge of his bunk, staring at the morsel of explosive. He saw instead the girl he had glimpsed in the flame. She had danced with her body, writhing sinuously like a belly dancer as her breasts heaved against the fire's translucence. Schaydin couldn't have been mistaken, the girl had been as real as—the Cambodian girl he had burned. And this girl's expression was so alive, her fire-bright eyes glinting with arrogant demand. What had the Cambodian girl been crying? But her eyes were dulled by the clinging napalm . . . .

The pellet of C-4 came into focus as Schaydin's fingers rotated it. All right, there was a simple way to see whether his mind had been playing tricks on him.

Schaydin set the ball of explosive on top of a minican, the sealed steel ammunition box prized as luggage by men in armored units. C-4 burned at over 1000 degrees, the lieutenant remembered, but it would burn briefly enough that only the paint would scorch. The flame of Schaydin's cigarette lighter wavered away from the white pellet and heated the case in his hand. Then a tiny spark and a flicker of orange winked through the yellow naphtha flare. Schaydin jerked his lighter away and shut it. Fire loomed up from the plastique. Its hissing filled the tent just as the roar of an incoming rocket does an encampment.

And the dancer was there again.

The engineer platoon ran a generator which powered lights all over the firebase through makeshift lines of commo wire. Left-handed and without looking at it, Schaydin jerked away the wire to his tent's lightbulb. The sputtering fire brightened in the darkness, and in it the girl's features were as sharp as if a cameo carven in ruddy stone. But the mouth moved and the dancer called to Schaydin over the fire-noise, "Viens ici! Viens a Marie!" Schaydin had studied French as an undergraduate in divinity school, enough to recognize that the tones were not quite those of modern French; but it was clear that the dancer was calling him to her. His body tensed with the impossible desire to obey. Sweat rimmed all the stark lines of his muscles.

Then the flame and the girl were gone together, though afterimages of both danced across Schaydin's eyes. The lieutenant sat in the dark for some time, oblivious to the half-movement he might have glimpsed through a chink in the poncho. The CQ turned back to his microphone, frowning at what he had watched.


Schaydin was more withdrawn than usual in the morning, but if any of his fellow officers noticed it, they put it down to the lieutenant's natural anxiety about his position. The next days would determine whether Schaydin would be promoted to captain and take on for the rest of his tour the slot he now held in place of the wounded Captain Fuller. Otherwise, Schaydin would have to give up the company to another officer and return to Third Platoon. Schaydin had thought of little else during his previous week of command, but today it barely occurred to him. His mind had been drifting in the unreality of South-East Asia; now it had found an anchorage somewhere else in time and space.

The thin lieutenant spent most of the day in his tent, with the orange sidewalls rolled up to make its roof an awning. The First Sergeant was stationed permanently in the Regiment's base camp at Di An, running an establishment with almost as many troops as there were in the field. In Viet Nam, even in a combat unit, a majority of the troops were noncombatants. Bellew, the Field First, was on R&R in Taiwan, so an unusual amount of the company's day-to-day affairs should have fallen on the commander himself.

Today Schaydin sloughed them, answering the most pressing questions distractedly and without particular interest. His eyes strayed often to his minican, where the paint had bubbled and cracked away in a circle the size of a fifty-cent piece.

She had seemed short, though he could not be sure since the image had been less than a foot tall when the flames leapt their highest. Not plump, exactly, for that implied fat and the dancer had been all rippling muscularity; but she had been a stocky girl, an athlete rather than a houri. And yet Schaydin had never before seen a woman so seductively passionate, so radiant with desire. Every time Schaydin thought of the dancer's eyes, his groin tightened; and he thought of her eyes almost constantly.

Come to me . . . . Come to Marie . . . .


The activities of the firebase went on as usual, ignoring Schaydin just as he did them. Second Platoon and some vehicles from Headquarters Company bellowed off on a Medcap to a village ten kilometers down Route 13. There the medics would dispense antibiotics and bandages to the mildly ill. The troops would also goggle at ravaged figures whom not even Johns Hopkins could have aided: a child whose legs had been amputated three years past by a directional mine; a thirty-year-old man with elephantiasis of the scrotum, walking bowlegged because of the bulk of his cantaloupe-sized testicles . . . .

Chinook helicopters brought in fuel and ammunition resupply in cargo nets swinging beneath their bellies. Schaydin did not notice their howling approach; the syncopated chop of their twin rotors as they hovered; the bustle of men and vehicles heading toward the steel-plank pad to pick up the goods. The lieutenant sat impassively in his tent even when the howitzer battery fired, though the hogs were lofting some of their shells to maximum range. The muzzle blasts raised doughnuts of dust that enveloped the whole base. Schaydin's mind's eye was on a dancing girl, not men in baggy green fatigues; the roar he heard was that of a crowd far away, watching the dancer . . . and even the dust in Schaydin's nostrils did not smell like the pulverized laterite of Tay Ninh Province.

"Time for the officers' meeting, sir," Sloane murmured.

Schaydin continued to sit like a thin, nervous Buddha in a lawn chair.

"Sir," the driver repeated loudly, "they just buzzed from the TOC. It's already 1500 hours."

"Oh, right," muttered the lieutenant dizzily. He shook his head and stood, then ran his fingertips abstractedly over the blackened minican. "Right."


The Tactical Operations Center was merely a trio of command vehicles around a large tent in the middle of the firebase. Schaydin had forgotten to carry his lawn chair with him. He pulled up a box which had held mortar shells and sat facing the acetate-covered map with its crayoned unit symbols. The afternoon rain started, plunging sheets of water that made the canvas jounce like a drumhead. It sounded like an angry crowd.

The Civil Affairs Officer and the lieutenant from the military intelligence detachment shared a presentation on the results of the Medcap. They proved that zero could be divided in half to fill twenty minutes. Then the Operations Officer described F Troop's morning sweep. It had turned up two old bunkers and some cartridge cases, but no signs of recent occupation. The sector was quiet.

The balding S-3 switched to discussing the operation planned in two days. When he directed a question to Schaydin, the lieutenant continued to rock silently on his box, his eyes open but fixed on nothing in the tent.

"Schaydin!" the squadron commander snarled. "Stop sitting there with your finger up your butt and pay attention!"

"Yes, sir!" Schaydin's face flushed hot and his whole body tingled, as if he had just been roused from a dead faint. "Would you please repeat the question, sir?"

The meeting lasted another ten minutes, until the rain stopped. Schaydin absorbed every pointless detail with febrile acuteness. His flesh still tingled.


After Colonel Brookings dismissed his officers into the clearing skies, Schaydin wandered toward the far side of the defensive berm instead of going directly to his tent. He followed the path behind one of the self-propelled howitzers, avoiding the pile of white cloth bags stuffed with propellant powder. The charges were packed in segments. For short range shelling, some of the segments were torn off and thrown away as these had been. Soon the powder would be carried outside the perimeter and burned.

Burned. A roaring, sparking column of orange flame, and in it—

Schaydin cursed. He was sweating again.

Three ringing explosions sounded near at hand. The noise had been a facet of the background before the rain as well, Schaydin remembered. He walked toward the source of the sounds, one of First Platoon's tanks. It had been backed carefully away from the berm, shedding its right tread onto the ground, straight as a tow line between the vehicle and the earthen wall. Four men hunched behind a trailer some yards from the tank. One of them, naked to the waist, held a detonator in his hand. The trooper saw Schaydin approaching and called, "Stand back, sir. We're blowing out torsion bars."

The lieutenant stopped, watching. The trooper nodded and slapped closed the scissors handle of the detonator. Smoke and another clanging explosion sprang from among the tank's road wheels. The enlisted men straightened. "That's got it," one of them murmured. Schaydin walked to them, trying to remember the name of the tall man with the detonator, the tank commander of this vehicle.

"What's going on, Emmett?" Schaydin asked.

None of the enlisted men saluted. "Emery, sir," the TC corrected. "Our tank had six torsion bars broke, so she steered and rode like a truck with square wheels. Back in the World they've got machines to drift out torsion bars, but here we're just using a couple ounces of C-4 to crack each one loose." The tall non-com pointed at the block of explosive dropped on the ground beside him. Its green sandwich backing had been peeled away from both sides, and half the doughy white plastique had been pinched off. Several copper blasting caps lay on the ground beside the C-4.

Emery ignored the lieutenant's sudden pallor. He stopped paying attention to Schaydin entirely since it was obvious that the officer was not about to help with the job. "Come on, snakes," Emery said, "we got a lot to do before sundown."

The crewmen scrambled to their fifty-ton mount, hulking and rusted and more temperamentally fragile than any but the men responsible for such monsters will ever know. Schaydin's staring eyes followed them as he himself bent at the knees and touched the block of C-4. Its smooth outer wrapper was cool to his fingers. Without looking at the explosive, Schaydin slid it into a side pocket of his fatigue trousers. He walked swiftly back to his tent.


Tropic sunset is as swift as it is brilliant. It crams all the reds and ochres and magentas of the temperate zones into a few minutes which the night then swallows. But the darkness, though it would be sudden, was hours away; and Schaydin's pulsing memory would not let him wait hours.

Sloane was radio watch this afternoon. The driver sat on the tailgate of the command vehicle with his feet on the frame of his cot. He was talking to the staff sergeant who would take over as CQ at 2000 hours. They fell silent when Schaydin appeared.

"Go ahead, Skip, get yourself some supper," the lieutenant said stiffly. "I'll take the radio for a while."

"S'okay, sire, Walsh here spelled me," Sloane said. He pointed at the paper plate with remnants of beef and creamed potatoes, sitting on his footlocker. "Go ahead and eat yourself."

"I said I'd take the radio!" Schaydin snapped. He was trembling, though he did not realize it. Sloane glanced very quickly at his commander, then to the startled sergeant. The driver lowered his feet from the cot and squeezed back so that Schaydin could enter the track. The two enlisted men were whispering together at the open end of the tent when their lieutenant drew the poncho shut, closing off the rest of the world.

It was dim in the solid-walled vehicle, dimmer yet when Schaydin unplugged the desk lamp. Radio dials gleamed and reflected from the formica counter, chinks of light seeped in past the curtain. But it would serve, would serve . . . .

The texture of the C-4 steadied Schaydin's fingers as he molded it. The high sides of the ashtray made it difficult to ignite the pellet. The hot steel of the lighter seared his fingers and he cursed in teary frustration; but just before Schaydin would have had to pull away winked the spark and the orange flare—

—and in it, the girl dancing.

Her head was flung back, the black, rippling, smokey hair flying out behind her. Schaydin heard the words again, "A Marie! Ici! Viens ici!" The radio was babbling, too, on the command frequency; but whatever it demanded was lost in the roar of the crowd. Passion, as fiercely hot as the explosive that gave it form, flashed from the girl's eyes. "Come to me!"

The flame sputtered out. Schaydin was blind to all but its afterimage.

The compartment was hot and reeking. Sweat beaded at Schaydin's hairline and on his short, black moustache. He stripped the backing away from the rest of the explosive and began to knead the whole chunk, half a pound, into a single ball.

"Battle Six to Battle One-Six," the radio repeated angrily in Colonel Brookings' voice. "Goddammit, Schaydin, report!"

The ashtray had shattered in the heat. Schaydin swept the fragments nervously to the floor, then set the lump of explosive on the blood-marked formica. A shard of clear glass winked unnoticed in the heel of his hand. He snapped his lighter to flame and it mounted, and she mounted—

—and she called. Her hands could not reach out for him but her soul did and her Hell-bright eyes. "Viens ici! Viens!"

The dancer's smooth flesh writhed with no cloak but the flame. Higher, the radio dials melting, the lizard-tongue forks of the blaze beading the aluminum roof—Schaydin stood, his ankles close together like hers. He did not reach for her, not because of the heat but because the motion would be—wrong. Instead he put his hands behind his back and crossed his wrists. Outside the curtain, voices snarled but the dragon-hiss of the C-4 would have drowned even a sane man's senses. She twisted, her eyes beckoning, her mouth opening to speak. Schaydin arched, bending his body just so and—


—and he went.

The poncho tore from Colonel Brookings' fingers and a girl plunged out of the fiery radio compartment. She was swarthy but not Vietnamese, naked except for smouldering scraps of a woolen shift. Neither Brookings nor the enlisted men could understand the French she was babbling; but her joy, despite severe burns on her feet and legs, was unmistakeable.

No one else was in the vehicle.


On October 14, 1429, the assembled villagers of Briancon, Province of Dauphine, Kingdom of France, roared in wonderment. The witch Marie de la Barthe[ag, being burned alive at the stake, suddenly took the form of a demon with baggy green skin. The change did not aid the witch, however, for the bonds still held. Despite its writhing and unintelligible cries, the demon-shape burned as well in the fire as a girl would have.

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